Peace Lily Lessons About Sensitivity & Resilience

When we came home from Texas after ten days away, I found Lily, my peace lily, drooping in her pot.

I had left her in a baking dish full of water and pulled back the window blinds so that she could enjoy the sunlight in our absence, but the pan was dry and, with the heat shut off, the temperature in our apartment had dropped far below her temperate preferences. The stalks of her leaves folded sharply downward so that she resembled a spindly, pale green, many-legged spider.

I resigned myself to this evidence that I had not inherited my mother and her father’s green thumbs. Barely past the two month mark, my goal of keeping a plant alive and healthy for six months seemed sadly done for. Nevertheless, I watered her and turned on the heat and angled a small humidifier toward her leaves. By the next morning, she was already starting to perk back up. Two days later, her leaves were once again standing tall, their dark green color betraying little sign of her brush with neglect.

Peace lilies are supposed to be hardy plants. That’s one of the reasons I chose that species to start my new adventures in plant care-taking. Watching Lily rapidly un-shrivel and bloom in the days following our return, I found myself in the odd position of envying a plant. I want her resilience for myself.

On Christmas day, I burst into tears for some completely minor reason, startling my dad who started lecturing me about overreacting until my explanation that I cry practically every week gave him pause.

“I didn’t know you were so sensitive,” he said. “You don’t usually cry when we see you.” This, despite the fact that I had also burst into tears the previous Christmas. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not very good at holidays.

“I cry all the time,” I tried to explain to him. “I broke down sobbing when I heard that Australia had voted in favor of marriage equality, and I’ve never even been to Australia.”

“I guess we just don’t see you for a full week most of the time,” he decided and let the matter drop.

I’m sensitive. It’s true. I flinch at sounds that don’t even register for Lawrence — and he’s no aural lightweight, painstakingly normalizing the volumes of mix CD tracks with barely-detectable fraction-of-a-decibel adjustments. My sister can tell you about the ordeal of trying to get a pencil liner or a mascara wand or (Heaven forbid!) a pair of false lashes near my eyes: I twitch and blink uncontrollably, leaving everything smeared and askew. My sensitivity to flavors in foods has made me the pickiest eater I know. I’m pretty sure I have a reputation among even my close friends for being particular and easy to offend. And I cry all the time.

The worst part, though, is how long it takes me to bounce back after something goes wrong. The aftertaste of a tense exchange can linger for hours. Arguments (and I’m very argumentative!) can make me feel off kilter for days. So it was probably inevitable that my two-for-one New Year’s Day birthday was going to include an argument, followed by a jag of crying, followed by long, wobbly hours wondering how to recover.

Finally, around eight or nine at night, I said to Lawrence, “Let’s just start over.” I know this sounds ridiculous, but I pretended it was morning, and I pretended to wake up to a fresh new birthday with no mistakes in it yet (to paraphrase my favorite literary heroine). I took a shower and got dressed, and we watched a movie and had cake, and by then night and morning were blurring back together. But still we had somehow managed to rescue this small sliver of cheer from an otherwise dreary day.

I’m sensitive. It’s true. But maybe my sensitivity is also the fuel for my imagination, which might be my richest tool for cultivating resilience. My plant needs light and water and warmth, and my soul needs the ability to imagine better, to imagine a reason worth striving and falling short and striving again. I hope each next age can bring me closer to that.


The May of Life

At a poetry event recently, I read a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, “Love Letter to Stories.” One of the lines was this:

My endings
are narrowing all of the time.

While I spent most of my time with my grandparents on previous trips to China, it was my aunt and uncle who accompanied us on our outings during this most recent trip. I visited my cousin in his own home, met his wife and his newborn daughter. I felt a stark sense of all of us having aged out of one era and into the next.

At age 31, I’m aware that I’m still young, but I feel increasingly conscious of my aging. In photos from even four or five years ago, my skin seems smooth and unmarked compared to the face that greets me each morning in the bathroom mirror. Not only do I have two white hairs (I resolved on my 30th birthday to stop pulling them out when they appeared), but my white hairs have been around for so long that they have split ends.

Often, it feels too late to make sweeping changes in the trajectory of my life. I’ve hurtled myself into the space of time, and while I may be able to steer a few degrees this way or that, surely the course has already been set.

Recently, I thought of the perfect analogy to remind myself of how many possibilities are still open to me. If I can reasonably expect to live to the age of 90 (based on the lifespans of my ancestors), then 31 is at the beginning of the second third of my life. 31 is the spring of life. The May of life, if you will.

Right now, in early May, there are some things that are already impossible for me to do this year. If I want to give birth to a baby this year, too late. I’m not pregnant, and even if I could conceive today, the only way I’d give birth this year would be a medical emergency. Similarly, at age 31, there are some possibilities that are already off limits for the course of my life. It’s probably too late for me to have a serious ballet performance career, like my sister does; she expects to retire around my age.

But, even if we haven’t taken a single step toward them yet by early May, there is still room in this year for enormous undertakings and changes for any of us. The year I ran a marathon in November, I started training in May. My parents married about six months after they met, so someone single in May could be married by December. Between May and December, you could change jobs, move somewhere new, or meet a whole new circle of friends.

At age 31, there are still countless things that I can do from here, the May of my life. Not only can I steer my ship a few degrees, but I can swing it in a wide arc in any direction.

My endings may be narrowing all of the time, but they are not narrow.